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Sentencing Overview

After a person is convicted of a crime, whether through a guilty plea, plea bargain, or jury verdict, the appropriate legal punishment is determined at the sentencing phase of a trial. During this phase, a judge usually has some level of discretion in fashioning the appropriate punishment for a particular crime. Continue reading for an overview of sentencing laws in the U.S.

Types of Sentences

A number of different kinds of punishment may be imposed on a convicted criminal defendant, including:

  • Fines;
  • Incarceration in jail (shorter-term);
  • Incarceration in prison (longer-term);
  • Death (in some states);
  • Probation;
  • A suspended sentence, which takes effect if conditions such as probation are violated;
  • Payment of restitution to the crime victim;
  • Community service; and
  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Sentencing usually takes place almost immediately after convictions for infractions and minor misdemeanors, or when a defendant has pled guilty. In more complex criminal cases, such as those involving serious felonies, the sentencing judge usually receives input from the prosecutor, the defense, and the probation department (which prepares recommendations in a "pre-sentence report").

Also, some states have established special drug courts which are controlled by judges and which focus on rehabilitating, rather than incarcerating drug offenders.

Factors Influencing a Criminal Sentence

The sentencing judge will typically have a range of sentences already set forth in a criminal statute; and in some jurisdictions (including federal sentencing guidelines), mandatory minimum sentences may apply. However, the judge can also consider a number of other case-specific factors, including:

  • The defendant's criminal history, or lack thereof;
  • The nature of the crime, the manner in which it was committed, and the impact on victims, i.e. whether injuries resulted;
  • The defendant's personal, economic, and social circumstances; and
  • Regret or remorse expressed by the defendant.

The sentencing phase will focus on these types of aggravating and mitigating circumstances surrounding the crime when determining the appropriate sentence. Evidence of these factors at the sentencing phase could come in the form of testimony from the defendant or from family members of the defendant or victim.

Appealing a Criminal Sentence

In addition to appealing a conviction, a criminal defendant can also appeal a sentence, and seek a reduction from a higher court. An appeal of a criminal sentence could be based on such arguments as:

  • Incorrect application of the law by the court;
  • Insufficient evidence to justify the sentence;
  • Abuse of discretion by the court; or
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel.

Criminal Sentencing: Related Resources

If you have further questions about sentencing laws and procedures or simply want to do your own research, click on the links below:

Questions About Sentencing? Talk to an Attorney

As you can see, there are a number of sentences that could apply when someone is convicted of a crime. If you've been charged with a crime, it's a good idea to contact a criminal defense attorney who can help you make the case for a lighter sentence, either at trial or on appeal, especially if this is your first offense.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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